Let’s face it, unless Democrats win back the House in 2014, Obama will soon become a lame duck president. To some degree or another, it is a universal truth that second-term presidents turn to foreign policy to burnish their historical legacy. Yet the continuous drip of revelations about the National Security Agency’s vast array of surveillance programs is not only shaping up to be the biggest headache for the Obama administration. It's potentially primed to be part of its defining legacy. And that is sad. Super sad.
The latest news centers on allegations that the NSA has been tapping the cell phones of over 35 heads of state, from Brazilian president Dilma Rouseff to German chancellor Angela Merkel. Originally reported last week by the German magazine Der Spiegel, the shock waves from Berlin continue to ripple throughout the globe. Foreign governments everywhere are now scrambling their intelligence agencies’ best and brightest to see if they were victims of the United States as well. Even South Korea, perhaps America’s most discrete ally, has asked the Obama administration whether its leaders are on the list.
This wasn’t the way it was supposed to be. When Barack Obama won the presidency in 2008, the world expected him to bring transparency, good governance, and a more humane form of capitalism back to the United States, after eight years of the Bush administration. As Obama’s first secretary of State, Hillary Clinton talked emphatically about restoring American “soft power” after the previous presidency had squandered much of it through a series of strategically misguided wars. But instead of breaking with the recent past, the Obama administration has only tweaked the policies of the Bush administration, banning torture, yet expanding the use of drones and surveillance.
Now that the unprecedented scale of those surveillance policies is coming to light, American soft power is collapsing even faster under Obama than under the Bush. Angela Merkel, the typically staid, almost boring chancellor of Germany, reacted angrily to the news that her cell phone was tapped by American agents working out of the U.S. Embassy in Berlin. France and Spain reacted in a likewise stern manner to reports of mass surveillance of its leaders and citizens. A summit meeting last week in Brussels, where leaders from all 35 nations of the European Union had gathered to discuss the economy, turned into an emergency session on how to deal with America’s spying program and whether talks on the highly anticipated Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) should be suspended.
This is not good. As I wrote earlier this year, the Obama administration wants TTIP badly, it’s the centerpiece of the administration’s trade policy, thus it seemed like an absolute waste of time for the United States to have been spying on Europe, when the continent’s strategic value is as an economic power with a lot of the same interests. But with news coming out of Washington that Obama either wasn’t informed of the spying program or flat out lied to Angela Merkel about his knowledge of the situation when she called to confront him, the Obama administration looks increasingly incompetent or malicious or both. Across Europe calls are growing louder for new laws and possible legal action against American companies like Google, Facebook, and Apple that comply with NSA directives. Business leaders from all over Europe worry openly whether this massive intelligence architecture isn’t being used to engage in industrial espionage on them as well. Not a great moment for getting a major trade deal done.
One shouldn’t underestimate the profound sense of frustration, disappointment, and fear that the American spy programs engender in Europe, where the legacies of fascism can still be felt in the bones of the populace and where data privacy is taken as seriously as gun rights in the United States. Thomas de Maiziere, German defense minister and paragon of the transatlantic alliance, said on German television that he expected his phone to be tapped, “but not by the Americans,” before saying that if the allegations prove true they would be “very grave” for the German-American relationship.
This is a toxic environment for an administration wishing to hitch its wagon to foreign-policy successes. Obama’s goals in that arena are ambitious—defanging Iran’s nuclear program, brokering peace between Israelis and Palestinians, buffering the rise of China as a geostrategic rival. The first two require tough decisions that could upset regional allies like Saudi Arabia and Israel; the last can only be achieved by rallying the forces of openness and transparency against the Chinese model of “state capitalism” with its massive censorship regime and cyber-espionage capability.
But when not so far-fetched comparisons between the United States and China abound, is it realistic to expect the Obama administration to rally other nations to their cause? If the president really wants to enhance his foreign policy legacy, he’ll have to do more than technocratic adjustments at the margins. He should go big, and initiate sweeping reform of the intelligence community. Otherwise this sad spy story will occupy a prominent place in his administration’s history.